Going back to gravel roads?

Published 12:49 am Sunday, March 13, 2011

County engineers are faced with repairing hundreds of miles of road with dwindling budgets. Some have even considered tearing up asphalt roads and replacing them with gravel roads. -- Tim Reeves

By Kevin Pearcey

The Greenville Advocate

Editor’s note: This the final part in a series examining the road conditions in Alabama’s Black Belt and funding issues impeding their repair.

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Alabama’s county engineers have an answer for maintaining the estimated 60,000 miles of rural roadways they’re responsible for.

It’s not, however, one they’re keen on: plowing up the neglected, failing paved roads and spreading a layer of gravel over them.

But Butler County Commissioner Lynn Harold Watson sees no other alternative in the future. After taking a tour of the county’s worst roads with engineer Dennis McCall in March 2010, Watson saw firsthand the destitute condition of Butler County’s road infrastructure.

He was grim in his assessment.

“These roads are going to hell and back,” Watson said. “I’m telling you this: five years from now your major roads will be gravel, unless we decide to do something. You can sit back and say ‘the state is going to come in’…they’re not coming…it tears me out of my frame to know there’s a cemetery where my momma and daddy and myself is going to be buried and I can’t get to it because the damn roads have to go back to gravel.”

McCall agreed with Watson.

“It’s headed down that direction,” he said.

The concern is not unique to Butler County. Some county governments in Alabama, and across the nation, including Indiana, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have already converted roads from paved to gravel due to the high cost of asphalt.

Lowndes County Engineer David Butts said county officials have discussed this alternative, but most aren’t inclined to begin an extensive replacement of asphalt with gravel.

The reason?

While gravel roads would allow counties to save money (it costs approximately $100,000 to re-pave one mile of asphalted roadway), gravel brings its own set of problems:

  • Drivers must be more cautious because of the loose stone, and it is easier to lose control of the automobile.
  • Stones can skip and chip paint and windshields.
  • There’s a greater amount of tire wear.
  • Dust from the road can cause visibility issues.
  • Stones can puncture tires and even an automobile’s fuel tank, especially on low-riding cars.
  • Mud after heavy rain is particularly dangerous and can cause vehicles to skid.
  • Larger vehicles — like school buses or trucks — must exercise increased caution in rain. And that’s if the road is even passable during or after a heavy rainstorm.

Also, converting roads from asphalt to gravel certainly doesn’t support the American ideal of prosperity and achievement.

Is there an alternative?

Repairing rural roads will likely require a local tax increase, either sales or property. That idea is easier said than done, but McCall said he felt following a Pay as You Go program similar to what Mobile County has used would help the chances of passing a tax. The Mobile County Commission actually identifies individual road projects, gets public input, and puts those projects up for a vote by the people. There have been 13 Pay as You Go programs in Mobile County since 1977.

McCall said the program eliminates some of the concerns the public might have about the funding.

“Voters actually get to see how the money is spent and what roads will be repaired,” he said.